Diachronic Constitution and Extended Consciousness

Diachronic Constitution and Extended Consciousness

Based on our third-wave framing of predictive processing, we argued in our previous post (4) that generative models cannot be unplugged from the world, given that action couples the agent to the environment.

It is only via action in the world that the agent is able to tune and maintain its generative model in the way required to keep prediction error to a minimum in the long-term. In our final post we reflect on the implications of this claim for consciousness based on the specific case of culture shock.

In culture shock, subjects describe feelings of distress and alienation from the world. Take Bruce Wexler’s case of 13-year old Eva, who, along with her mother and father, left Poland for the prospects of a better life in Vancouver, Canada (Hoffman 1989, discussed in Wexler 2008). Having spent only three nights in Vancouver, she reports waking up from a dream, wondering:

“…what has happened to me in this new world? I don’t know. I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me. I’m not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist.” (Hoffman, 1989, p. 180; quoted in Wexler, 2008, p. 175)

Culture shock illustrates how many of the expectations a person comes to embody in their generative model have their origin outside of the individual in patterns of practices. Should the individual move to a new environment the result will be misalignment, and pervasive, hard to suppress prediction error. This is what we see with Eva. To properly explain cases such as culture shock we need to appeal to an extended dynamic singularity comprising Eva’s internal states, the patterns of practice that are enacted within her cultural niche, and her sensory and active states that couple her to the environment (i.e., her Markov blanket).

To explain her current experiences one must take into account her involvement in past cultural practices, and the role of these practices in maintaining her generative model. This is because priors are tuned and updated by participating in cultural practices. But emphasising this prior learning history at the expense of action in the here-and-now would be a mistake. It is not just her past that we need to take into account but also her present circumstances, and her orientation to the future in her new cultural environment.

We take the case of culture shock to highlight that attunement to the cultural environment is an integral part of the phenomenology of our everyday conscious experiences. In culture shock this attunement to the everyday world is lost and this leads to a deep disturbance of lived experience. But this attunement or misattunement relies on the ongoing coupling of the generative model to the cultural world through cycles of perception and action. At this stage in our argument the metaphysically inclined may want to push back by pressing us to reflect on a case of neural duplicates Eva and Eva*. They will argue that Eva and Eva* could share the very same experience of culture shock just by virtue of being neural duplicates, irrespective of the environment in which they are embedded. 

We suggest it is exactly this possibility of unplugging the brain of Eva from its surrounding cultural environment that the case of culture shock reveals to be implausible. To see this we can begin by asking under what conditions Eva and Eva* could be neural duplicates? Under predictive processing, we come to be the generative model we are in virtue of how we influence the world, and how the world influences us. So for Eva and Eva* to be neural duplicates they must be phenotypic duplicates – they must share the same distribution of functional and physiological states, morphological features, patterns of behavioral dispositions, and the ecological, social, cultural and material niche that makes them the kind of individuals that they are.

This suggests that the mere fact that Eva and Eva* are neural duplicates is not sufficient for them to be phenomenal duplicates – they must be duplicate extended dynamic singularities. Eva and Eva* could not be phenomenal duplicates yet differ in their environmental embedding.

To see this last point, let’s assume Eva and Eva* instantiate the same generative model, and generate the same predictions. But now imagine that Eva is back home in Poland while Eva* is living her new life in Vancouver, and experiencing culture shock. What explains Eva*’s experience of culture shock? The difference-maker we suggest is cultural practice. It is the cultural world that explains why Eva and Eva* could be generative duplicates and yet still differ in their phenomenal experience at a specific moment in time.

A familiar objection for us is that our appeal to cultural practices, history and shared worlds just sets the stage for internal mechanisms to do the actual constitutive work in generating perceptual experience. To say otherwise our opponents object would be to confuse ultimate with proximate causes, or causation with constitution.

This is the so-called causal-constitutive fallacy reformatted for third-wave extended mind. The causal-constitutive fallacy however relies on there being a fixed distinction between ultimate and proximate causes; or, alternatively, between causation and constitution. We think this is the wrong way to think about the relation between these notions. Indeed, even if one accepts a distinction between the proximate and the ultimate, or between causation and constitution, one need not accept that this distinction picks out a division between privileged or constitutive causes at a time and merely supporting background causes over time. The case of culture shock suggests proximate explanations of how some conscious experience come about depend constitutively on ultimate causes.

Breaking with the temptation to treat proximate and ultimate causes as mutually exclusive factors in explanation implies that ultimate causes are sometimes part of the constitutive explanation of consciousness. The third-wave perspective on predictive processing entails a new metaphysics of the constitution of conscious experience as diachronic – a metaphysics of constitution that does not treat this dependence relation in purely synchronic terms.

Diachronic constitution allows for a view where the agent and the wider cultural niche cannot be cleanly unplugged from one another in a way that would allow for a purely neural explanation of consciousness. In other words, conscious beings like Eva are not like Pac-Man. Conscious beings cannot throw away the world and rely wholly and exhaustively on their brains for the construction of their experiences. Conscious beings cannot be unplugged from the extended dynamic singularity that forms in the agent’s coupling with the world because conscious beings are extended dynamic singularities.